The California prison system
has a policy that new prisoners were always assigned cellmates of the same
The theory was that this
would reduce racially-motivated violence.
Johnson sued, claiming that
this policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
California agreed that they
policy created race-based classifications, but that they had a good
reason for doing so.
California also agued that
the law was racially-neutral since all prisoners were 'equally'
The Trial Court found for
California. Johnson appealed.
The Trial Court found that
the policy met the rational basis test, and so was constitutionally permissible under the Equal
The rational basis test is the lowest level judicial scrutiny, and
says that in order to withstand judicial scrutiny on equal
protection grounds, a law must bear
a rational relation to some legitimate end.
The Appellate Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court reversed
and remanded for a new trial.
The US Supreme Court
reiterated that policies that create race-based classifications are subject
to strict scrutiny.
Strict scrutiny is the level of review used when a fundamental constitutional right is infringed, or when
the government action involves the use of a suspect
classification such as race that may
render it void under the Equal Protection Clause.
In order to pass a strict
scrutiny review, a law must:
Be justified by a compelling
Be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
Use least restrictive
means to achieve that interest.
The Court remanded the case
to determine if the California policy could withstand strict scrutiny.